It looks like ancient history. At mom's house a few months ago I found this: an August 1980 edition of National Geographic. The distinctive border still a golden yellow but the photographs inside, especially in a 22-page spread on Milwaukee – "More Than Beer" – have a long-lost color to them; an almost unreal range of dull hues.
So much in the photos and the article seems so familiar, if a little stereotypical by now: hard working folks, proud of the city's ethnic roots, friendly, happy folks around a vintage Milwaukee bar in a corner tap, a man mowing his backyard behind a classically Milwaukee-looking home, the Brewers on the field (in this case, yes, milking a cow and at County Stadium).
In a large panoramic aerial photo you can see the breakwater and the U.S. Bank building – then the First Wisconsin, of course – The Pfister, Cudahy Tower, Juneau Village.
But, look closely, and you'll see the unfinished spur of I-794, the old Summerfest Main Stage, surface parking where Discovery World now sits. There's no 411 E. Wisconsin building (T.A. Chapman's is still there!) and no condo towers yet dotted Prospect Avenue. The Third Ward resembles little more than a giant open field.
This looks a lot like the Milwaukee I arrived to find in summer 1983, though even by then this article was outdated, especially the photo of executives from Pabst, Miller and Schlitz holding beer steins. Schlitz was gone by '83 and it wouldn't be all that long before Pabst would follow. There's a picture of a guy working at Bucyrus-Erie, making giant gears (OK, they still do THAT), and another of Mayor Henry Maier with a microphone, looking as if he'd just burst into song (which was not uncommon).
By 1983 Milwaukee already didn't quite feel anymore like the vibrant city that Louise Levathes of the National Geographic staff was describing when she said, "Sidewalks blossom with vendors and open-air cafes when Milwaukee greets summer with a hug." There were a lot of years back then when many things shut down and very few things seemed to open. I was a dichotomy. Milwaukee seemed more like a place for departures than arrivals.
In some senses, though, Levathes seems like a seer. Her caption about blossoming sidewalks in summer sure describes the Milwaukee of the Calatrava, of a bustling Third Ward, a reinvigorated Bay View, a redefined Menomonee Valley.
Nowadays, folks may not talk much about how Edward Steichen was from here and younger Milwaukeeans maybe don't even know the name Henry Maier, much less that he was mayor for decades, but it is easy to see ourselves in the different Milwaukee that Levathes visited 32 years ago.
But that's not entirely a good thing.
"After living in the city for many weeks," she wrote, "I realized that there are still three Milwaukees. Now boundaries are social and economic. ... Such separation breeds fear. ... Some say the inner city is lost."
Those words sound eerily familiar more than three decades later.
Wow!! That's the same unfinished I-794 that the Blues Brothers almost drove their Bluesmobile off of while being chased by "Illinois nazis" right around this time.
I hate Illinois nazis!!!
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